Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Which American dream won West? |

Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Which American dream won West?

Dreams sometimes lift us into flights of fantasy. The real slips into the surreal. We imagine ourselves an action superhero, the last man standing. Malignant forces block our path. Still, we press on, shoulder responsibility and win.

Awake, we smile at such fanciful dreams.

Many interpret the American dream of winning the West as an archetypical struggle of the individual against Mother Nature.

A down-on-his-luck pioneer hitches his fortune to oxen that pull a covered wagon. A wife and children rock in that wagon, along with the family Bible and hardtack to eat. Rough-hewn furniture is crammed into its corners.

This settler crosses swollen streams, fights Indians, shoots bears, survives grasshopper plagues, ekes out an existence in a sod house and hopes for rain in the West’s Great American Desert.

We love the lore of this American dream. It’s the individual who perseveres, counting on personal grit and God who supplies it.

Such a dream is partly made up, though. Yes, some pioneers showed stellar strengths. They endured living conditions few of us would choose. But they weren’t loners who conquered the West.

Settlers had help – massive amounts of help from the federal government.

Remember the Homestead Act of 150 years ago? A few years ago, I portrayed Thomas Jefferson in period costume at the Homestead National Monument, near Beatrice, Neb.

As Jefferson, I made clear he believed our republic would thrive with minimal federal government. Then I visited the museum’s exhibits. They told the story of how Uncle Sam gave pioneers a chance to own land with the passage of the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862.

The federal government offered 160 acres of free public land to settlers 21 years and older who promised to build a home on it, farm this parcel for at least five years and stake a claim to it.

When the last Alaskan homesteader filed a claim in 1979, he brought to a close a monumental run on land that helped raise the United States to an economic superpower.

Four million homesteaders filed claims to 270 million acres in 30 states, 10 percent of the land mass in the United States.

The American dream of how the West was won isn’t only the story of loners, rugged individuals or citizens who wanted government off their backs going into the trackless wilderness and achieving success on their own.

By passing the Homestead Act, the federal government worked in concert with farmers to settle the West.

This portion of the American dream merits fresh awareness, especially for those who conjure up slices of U.S. history in which Uncle Sam is regarded as a drag, an albatross hung around the neck of pioneers who desired to go West on their own.

In the annual “Making of America” issue, Time’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham writes a lead story, “The History of the American Dream: Is it Real?” (Time Magazine, July 2, 2012, pp. 26-39). He shows why conservatives err when they erase government from achieving the American dream.

Meacham corrects the conservative penchant to simply make our nation’s story of successes a tribute to individual initiative, unencumbered by wasteful Uncle Sam.

“Yet there is a missing character,” Meacham reminds us, “in the story of America’s rugged individualism: the government, which helped make the rise of the individual possible. Americans have never liked acknowledging that what we now call the public sector has always been integral to making the private sector successful.”

Meacham goes on to show how the Homestead Act was a partnership between government initiative and citizens who implemented it.

Recently, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. If inequities pervading medical services are considered a wilderness, then two remedies are offered to escape this quagmire of inefficiency.

The American dream, claim conservatives, is realized when health care’s normal market forces correct themselves. This will allow individuals to exercise informed choices for medical service. Conservatives say citizens need to distance themselves from overreaching government that robs them of personal choice, personal responsibility and personal incentives.

What does this hodgepodge of a medical wilderness look like, though? Financially secure citizens qualify to buy insurance. Those living on society’s margins go without.

This is the real story of the American dream today.

The American dream at its best is fair because it offers opportunity to each citizen. The federal government helps make happen what’s fair.

Health insurance must be more accessible, especially with people caught in the wilderness of severe pre-existing conditions. It must be more affordable for those who struggle in a wilderness that keeps incomes low. And insurance must cover those wounded in the medical wilderness whose health care costs are exorbitant. All of us must pool resources to help those distressed.

The American dream is enhanced when we realize the wilderness – whether it is untracked land or a medical jungle – can be conquered when citizens and Uncle Sam walk hand in hand.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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